Where beauty grows: The art of an unplanned masterpiece


by Jan Spann

Some of us can look back over a span of 50 years and reflect on what we’ve accomplished, the things we’ve done well and what we might have changed. Nellie McEntire is no different, except that where she sees something to change, other gardeners flock to admire and learn from her art of an unplanned masterpiece.

Born in Pope County, Nellie married and moved to Van Buren County, where her husband Jimmy was raised. They first lived in Chimes, a tiny community nestled into the Ozark National Forest. When they moved to a new location just west of Clinton on Highway 16, the couple lived in a shop while building their home. Jimmy planted pine trees in the cow pasture closest to the house, and when he sold the cows, Nellie planted rhododendrons. That’s how she began a garden that now is a delight of beauty and tranquility and a tribute to persistence.

The pasture soil offered little nutrition for the early plantings, so Jimmy put in pine mulch and rotten sawdust from an old sawmill. Nellie would empty and spread trailers of dirt around the grounds. The first year she had a vegetable garden, but her passion quickly took root in the beauty of flowers, shrubs and trees.

“We had beautiful apple trees and pecan trees, which are just messy,” she said. “I liked working outdoors, so that’s how the woodland garden began.”

During these early years, Nellie worked in a local factory, and Jimmy worked for the Forestry Service and took carpentry jobs as well. The family soon became three when son Clifton was born.

“My biggest mistake was in not planning,” Nellie said. “I would see something I liked and set it out. Sometimes things would bloom and sometimes not.” The process also included moving, changing or taking something out, always looking for that perfect design.

The couple started with two acres, then they began to buy property, which is now the J & N Land Company. They host a family reunion in mid-June so relatives from North Carolina can join them for decoration day at the cemetery.

Nellie doesn’t travel much because of the garden chores. In the summer, she picks and hoes to keep the weeds down, although the mulch helps, too. Somehow she finds time to can fruit and to make scratch biscuits every morning.

“I don’t garden as much as before, but I keep busy,” she said. “If I were younger, I’d re-do it all! If people enjoy coming to look, they are welcome, but I can always find something I’d do differently.”

Nellie’s granddaughter, Karen, remembers when the McEntire garden spilled over to the other side of the highway. “Grandpa would give me a water hose, and I would crawl through the culvert under the road so they could water the flowers,” Karen said.

Of course, Nellie’s idea of not doing as much is still much more than most gardeners could accomplish, and the one place you won’t find her is sitting in the house. This woman enjoys being out with nature, getting her nails dirty and learning by watching what grows where.

Nellie used to hybridize day lilies but gave it up because the deer ate them, just like deer and squirrels go after the peaches and nectarines. And the hostas she loves were ravaged by voles a few years ago.

“My granddaughter Karen has a huge yard with good soil, and the deer don’t bother her plants. And my son Clifton prefers a green lawn. I look at it and imagine what I could do,” Nellie said, laughing at the irony.

The entrance to Nellie’s shade garden is through a wooden gate, and upon entering, visitors are greeted by the harmony of nature’s majesty and Nellie’s attentive hand. The garden overflows with lovely plantings of azalea, wild bloodroot, many fern varieties and so much more. Several pathways afford the visitor a closer look, where one can see delicate lady slippers peeking out from under a fern or dicentra. Pieres japonica and azalea sets the garden aflame in spring, and a leatherwood tree has fragrant blooms and shiny green leaves into the winter.

One path ends at a wooden deck over a small wet area; looking up, the visitor sees climbing hydrangea curling up a 40-foot pine, searching for the sun. Many varieties of Japanese maples self seed throughout, and pine straw covers the garden floor.

While Nellie’s shade garden is her grandest accomplishment, a side garden includes roses, poppies, fruit trees and an arbor with seating to contemplate the surroundings.

Nellie’s advice to gardeners is simple: Start with a plan and look at other gardens. Learn what you like, know how much space it takes and dig in. The rest of the story, however, takes a lifetime of nurturing that bit of nature you call your own.